Which is why Prosciutto di Parma, along with Parmigiano-Reggiano, is arguably the best-known and possibly the best export to come out of all of Italy. Sorry, Ferrari.
To be sure, though, neither Prosciutto di Parma nor Parmigiano-Reggiano is cheap stateside. I pay about $20 a pound for the ham and anywhere from $17 to $19 a pound for the cheese in my local market. But both offer something you won’t get from even your very best effort at tortelli di erbetta. As TV chef Lidia Bastianich once put it, “When you serve Prosciutto di Parma at home, you have Italy on a plate.”
That was my goal, anyway, of the “Parma party” I held after my return from Italy: to serve the most famous food of Italy’s most appetizing region the way it is supposed to be served. Unlike making tortelli di erbetta, capturing the magic of Italy’s best exports turned out to be simple. I just followed these rules:
Don’t cook it. Before the magic tortelli arrived at Ai Due Platani, I told the Consorzio’s Fabrizio Raimondi that I have long grilled figs stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese and wrapped with Parma ham. Delicious, right? He thought not. Raimondi glared at me as if I had insulted his mother. “I prefer to keep Prosciutto di Parma in its raw state,” he said. “To cook it is to take away the subtleties of the product.” (There is one exception: Emilians will cook the back end of prosciutto crudo because it is too stringy to eat in raw slices.) So, okay, no cooking. Serve raw, on a plate, with cubes of melon or slices of fig (uncooked, too) on the side.
Slice it correctly. Every restaurant, every salumeria, and almost every home in Parma has a deli slicer. In the commercial spots, most of these slicers are the hand-cranked kind. Electric slicers spin too quickly, which melts the delicate fat in Prosciutto di Parma, Culatello di Zibello and Emilia-Romagna’s other top salumi. Stateside, you will be lucky to find a deli with a hand-powered slicer. But if you are so lucky, shop there. If not, take care to sample slices from your deli person. Too thin and the ham will taste like cardboard. Too thick and it will be impossible to chew. Ask for sample slices and have it cut the same way every time you go back.
If it grows together, it goes together. The maxim about wine — to drink the wine that is made near the food you’re eating — holds true here. In this case, that would be dry Lambrusco, most of which is made near Modena in Emilia-Romagna and all of which is much better than the sweet Lambrusco that has dominated the U.S. market since the 1970s. Dry Lambrusco dominates the dining tables in Emilia-Romagna, where the grape has been grown perhaps since Roman times. And Jeremy Parzen, an Austin-based marketing consultant and author of the wine blog DoBianchi.com, says there is more authentic Lambrusco now available in the U.S. than ever before. He hails it as the perfect match for Emilia-Romagna’s rich cuisine. “The restrained alcohol content, bright acidity, and fizziness make Lambrusco a great thirst quencher when paired with the salt-cured, heavy staples of Emilia like Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano,” Parzen says. Worth noting: My 30 guests, most of whom had never had Lambrusco before, consumed a case of the stuff.
Make the tortelli. Okay, so it will never be the same as at Ai Due Platani. But you’ve got the ham that tastes like chestnuts and sea air, and you’ve got the cheese that tastes of buttery, Italian milk fat. You’ve got Italy already. So, even though you will fail to get the tortelli to taste just right, you will still fail deliciously.